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Letting Your New Leaders Sink or Swim? Big Mistake!

March 16th, 2018

By: Karen Colligan

Eighty-four percent of organizations anticipate a shortfall of leaders in the next five years, according to a State of Leadership Development report by Brandon Hall.  And a nearly equal number (83%) say that it’s important to develop leaders at all levels. Yet here’s the thing. Only 5% have actually implemented leadership development at all levels. In fact, the biggest chunk of money spent on leadership development goes toward senior leaders and executives, instead of to those who need it most – first time, frontline leaders. All too often these new leaders are put in a “sink or swim” situation, thrown into the deep end of leading a team and left to figure out for themselves how to stay afloat.

This is both unfair to the new leader and detrimental to the organization.

Most people are promoted into their first leadership role as a result of their high performance as an individual contributor and/or because of their technical skills. Yet what helped them succeed as an individual, will not necessarily contribute to their success as a people leader – where the challenges and responsibilities require a different set of skills. Without some sort of development opportunity early on in their transition from individual performer to leader, new leaders may simply mimic the behaviors of a leader they’ve had in the past, and not necessarily a good one. And those behaviors, once ingrained, are difficult to change.

A survey of HR leaders and practitioners conducted by the Human Capital Institute (HCI) found that “the sink or swim mindset toward new managers is ubiquitous.” In that survey, respondents were asked to rank the must-have skills for frontline managers in order of importance. Technical expertise was ranked as Number 7, preceded by:

- Ethics and integrity

- Communicates effectively

- Drives for results/motivation to succeed

- Flexibility/adaptability

- Develops effective teams

- Maintains relationships with internal stakeholders

While some of these skills might be inherent in a new leader, being able to apply them effectively while adapting to leading people – understanding individual strengths, motivators, skill gaps, personalities and how those individuals work together as a team, being accountable not just for their work but for the work of others – requires coaching and support.  Not to mention the challenge that many internally promoted leaders face – transitioning from buddy to boss.

New leader training needs to be a key component of every organization’s learning and development plan. And it should not be just a one-day event around policies, performance reviews and disciplinary actions.  It needs to be structured in a way that gives participants time to apply their learning, receive feedback, and get the ongoing support necessary (mentoring, coaching) to grow into the next line of senior leaders and executives.

Managers account for at least 70% of the variance in employee engagement. Gallup estimates that actively disengaged employees cost the U.S. $483 billion to $605 billion each year in lost productivity.

One last startling factoid for you from that Brandon Hall Report:  More money is spent on leadership development than any other area of corporate training, yet 71% of organizations do not feel their leaders are able to lead their organization into the future.

Doesn't it make sense to take the time to effectively develop leaders from the very beginning?

For more on this topic, check out my podcast: Sink or Swim is NOT Leadership Development.

Till next time,


company culture, Development, leadership development, New leaders

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Want to Keep Your Top Talent? Give Them a Reason to Stay!

February 22nd, 2018

By: Karen Colligan

The job market is looking pretty good these days, which means many employees – especially those whose skills are in demand – no longer feel bound by the “just be happy to have a job” mantra that has kept them in place. The competition for top talent has been heating up, and if you want to keep yours, you need to give them a reason to stay.

Why is it so important to keep top talent? Well, aside from the obvious (that they are high contributors to your success) these employees are rare and in demand, they cost more to replace, and they often take other top talent with them.

So, what can you do to keep ‘em?

To be engaged and loyal, employees need to feel valued, connected, challenged and recognized. Today, unfortunately, many are feeling overextended, under-appreciated and exhausted from trying to meet ever-increasing productivity expectations. And…with more opportunities out there, many are just a phone call away from leaving…

If you want your employees to be loyal to you, give them a reason to stay. Demonstrate that you value and appreciate them. Make them feel…

Valued by listening to them, and acknowledging their need for work/life balance.

Connected through ongoing communication about the direction of the organization and their role in it. Show them that they are a community and have a purpose bigger than themselves in it.

Challenged through growth opportunities and a clearly defined career path (NOT by more work, more hours…).

Recognized by frequent, sincere appreciation – both monetary and non-monetary – for their efforts.

Don’t let valuable mindshare and talent walk out your door. Start working to keep them today.

For more tips on how to keep your top talent, and some specific examples of actions that work, listen to my podcast “How to Keep ‘Em.”

Till next time,



company culture, Engagement, Leadership, People

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Leading to a Great Company Culture

April 24th, 2017

By: Karen Colligan

We hear a lot about the importance of company culture and its role in attracting, engaging and retaining employees. But what is company culture, and how do you go about creating a “best-place-to-work” caliber of culture when there’s so much other stuff to get done?

First of all, a great culture is more than fun after-work events, casual dress, and catchy slogans. It’s how employees, customers and the outside world perceive an organization based on its attitudes and behaviors. I can’t imagine that many of us perceive the skies to be as “friendly” after that paying customer was dragged from his seat recently on a United flight from Chicago to Louisville. If that’s how they treat customers, how do they treat their employees?

Culture is synonymous with behavior. And it stems from leadership behavior at all organizational levels.

To build a great culture, start by becoming really clear about who you are as a leader. I call this “developing your leadership mantra,” which I wrote about in a previous blog.

Once you’ve done this, the next steps are:
Be sure that everyone understands the Vision and Mission of the organization. Define them. Communicate them. Post them. Refer to them in employee meetings and other communications.

Establish and communicate clear Values. Model them with employees, customers, vendors, job candidates, everyone. Recognize employees who go above and beyond to model the values.

Ensure that expected leadership behaviors at all levels align with the Vision, Mission and Values. Coach leaders who do not meet these expectations.

Develop and communicate a clear and consistent definition of the culture. Make it easy to describe. Make it real. Test the definition with employees, with customers.

Recruit and hire great people who fit the culture. Use your tested definition in job postings and interviews. As part of your hiring process, determine what a “fit” is, and what it isn’t. Train hiring managers, and develop behavioral interview questions that will help determine fit.

Ask for feedback and adjust accordingly. Once you feel you’ve developed a great culture it’s easy to get complacent. But workplace cultures can shift – changes in leadership, business downturn, overly rapid growth, or external pressures, etc. Do a periodic check-up to ensure that all parts of your culture are healthy and if not, review, adjust and get back on track.

How would you currently rate your company culture? Here’s an idea: Interview a cross-section of your employees and see whether they all describe it the same. If not, go back to the steps above.

Till next time,


company culture, Engagement, Leadership

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Want to Get More Done? Lighten Up and Laugh a Little!

February 12th, 2016

By: Karen Colligan

Laughter-2Or better yet, A LOT!

Let’s face it. Work environments are pretty stressful these days. The constant push to get more done (often with fewer resources and less time) can take a toll on your mood, your health, and your relationships. But here’s the thing. Adding a little levity to your day will not only help you get more done, it will improve your mood, your health and your relationships!

How great is that?

In a recent Fast Company article, “The Surprising Ways Humor Can Improve Your Culture,” author Harvey Deutschendorf outlined five reasons why putting some humor into your work culture “can have you laughing all the way to the bank.”

1. It lowers stress and improves motivation
2. It builds stronger relationships
3. It helps you show appreciation
4. It improves your health
5. It makes for smoother transitions

If you know me, or have been following my blogs, then you know that I’m a major advocate for infusing some fun and laughter into the workplace. In fact, I wrote about the benefits of laughter early last year. In addition to the benefits Deutschendorf describes above, research shows that laughter contributes to increased creativity, improved problem solving, and enhanced memory.

I’ve seen how this works firsthand. Back in my hi-tech corporate days, I was asked to create a strategy that would improve communication and integrate the cultures of a number of newly acquired teams located on multiple campuses. The teams included senior managers, individual performers and all levels in between. The challenge was that they were not, and were not going to be, under one roof. And there was a fair amount of cultural resistance in becoming part of the new organization. I definitely had my work cut out for me!

I put together a team, booked a conference room for several weekly meetings, and armed myself with colored markers and blank flip chart paper. And then the fun began. A few ideas. Laughter. More laughter, more ideas. At one point we were laughing so hard that someone asked us to “pipe down.” OK, so disturbing others is probably not such a good idea, nevertheless, we made it fun and got it done! The outcome was the “People Road Show” - a traveling troupe of presenters who communicated the new culture, learning and volunteer opportunities, benefits and other people-related messages in a very creative and positive way. We had music, a tag line, a logo, and plenty of opportunities for the audience to ask questions and share concerns. Each “Road Show” concluded with a company-sponsored barbecue where employees from different campuses could get to know one another and feel part of the bigger picture.

The fun we had in the development process became an integral part of the product, and helped create one cohesive team out of many.

“A wonderful thing about true laughter is that it just destroys any kind of system of dividing people.” – John Cleese

Keep laughing!

Till next time,


company culture, Health, Teams


Resist “Flavor of the Month” People Initiatives

August 12th, 2015

By: Karen Colligan

Flavor-2One of the common concerns among the leadership teams I work with at various organizations is – “How do we keep our key employees from leaving?” I typically start by asking them what they’ve done so far. Often the conversation then goes something like this:

Client: We did a survey, and built some initiatives around the results.
Me: And how did that go?
Client: Well, we created cross-functional teams to work on each of the top four areas from the survey, but then_________ (fill in the blank from the following): a) their recommendations were too costly, or b) the team fell apart because of members’ work obligations or c) there was a shift in priorities due to business needs...


For years now, companies have been trying to turn around the widely reported low employee engagement scores. Tons of articles have been written, myriad solutions advised, and numerous remedies tried. It’s become “the flavor of the month” for employee engagement and retention. But here’s the thing. You can’t be everything to everyone. And in my experience with the multitude of clients I’ve worked with over the years, those who retain their top talent are the ones who:

1. Prioritize and commit to their people initiatives
2. Communicate consistently and ask for feedback on progress
3. Align their initiatives with the company culture

As a talent leader or learning and development leader, you need to get very clear about what your people initiatives are going to be. You need to prioritize based on your company culture, input from your employees, and the needs of the business. Once you prioritize, it’s critical to communicate and commit to those priorities so that your employees understand, and can get on board with them. Naturally, you can make tweaks and updates (communicating along the way), however changing things midstream, or trying to do too much at once, is confusing and disheartening to employees.

How are you going to keep your employees? Make them feel valued, connected, challenged, and recognized. Create an environment where individual, team and organizational goals are aligned so every employee knows how their work impacts overall success. Provide employees with a menu of options for continued development and growth. If you want to be an “employer of choice,” employees need to trust that you have their best interests at heart. That means resisting the “flavor of the month” and committing to initiatives that will have the best results for your people.

Till next time,

Communication, company culture, Engagement, Leadership, People


Why Employees Stay

July 27th, 2015

By: Karen Colligan

Stay-1A lot has been written about why employees leave – poor leadership, lack of advancement, compensation, and increasingly, work/life balance. In fact, the latter was cited in a 2014 BambooHR survey as the second highest reason employees leave, right behind #1: opportunity for advancement.

That’s why employees leave. Let’s talk about how you can get them to stay. Employees need to feel valued, connected, challenged and recognized. They want to use their strengths – every day - and know that they’re contributing to the success of the organization. They also want to have time to spend with their families and/or to pursue interests outside of work. And they want to be fairly compensated for the work they do. It’s not rocket science.

Help your employees feel valued by communicating how their goals align with team and organizational goals. Provide them with opportunities to build on their strengths, learn new skills and prepare for the future needs of the company. Development can happen in many different forms: on-the-job training, personal development, cross-functional projects, coach and/or mentor, special projects, stretch assignments, training courses, reading and personal study, online courses, peer coaching, job shadowing… The important thing is that it is available and encouraged.

Help them feel connected by communicating with them clearly and consistently. An HBR article, “The Top Complaints from Employees About Their Leaders” noted that communication issues top the list, including: Not recognizing employee achievements, not giving clear directions, and not having time to meet with employees. When leaders communicate regularly, and build a sense of connectedness with their employees, those employees are happier and more productive.

Do you have career roadmaps and succession plans in place? If not, what are you waiting for? Help your employees feel challenged by communicating the next level in their career path and what they need to do to get there. Give them temporary assignments that will stretch their skills and comfort level.

In the leaner work environment today, most employees are feeling the brunt of doing more with less. Recognize their efforts by saying “thank you” early and often. Don’t wait until review time to tell them what a good job they’re doing. And be specific – what was the situation, what did they do, and what was the impact. Applaud the behavior you want to see repeated and emulated.

Organizations need to acknowledge that their people are the lifeblood of the business. Don’t take your employees for granted. As the economy continues to improve and there are options for them elsewhere, you want to keep those employees in your organization. Find creative ways to develop and challenge them. Let them know they are valued, and that they are a critical component to the business moving forward. Build succession plans to ensure that your bench strength is available and ready to grow the business.

And most of all, don’t forget the old adage…treat your employees the way you want to be treated. It will pay off in leaps and bounds in the future.

Till next time,



Communication, company culture, Engagement, Leadership